reviews

New Directions for Special Collections: An Anthology of Practice. Eds. Lynne M. Thomas and Beth M. Whittaker. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries Unlimited, 2017. 249p. $85.00 (ISBN 978-1-4408-4290-0).

In their introduction to New Directions for Special Collections: An Anthology of Practice, Lynne M. Thomas and Beth M. Whittaker outline their approach: rather than create a current guide or textbook for a field where best practices, technology, and expectations are changing rapidly, they endeavor to provide a “snapshot” of where the field is now. An open call for submissions, along with a few solicited contributions, has resulted in twenty-one chapters from a diverse group of special collections, metadata, and preservation librarians, as well as conservators, directors, and archivists, speaking to various components of their work as it stands today, and as they see it evolving in the future (descriptions of the individual authors’ background are included). Each chapter can stand alone, and there are no groupings according to subject (the index is perfectly adequate for searching within the chapters).

Chapter 1, “The Rare Book Librarian’s Day, Revisited,” by Melanie Griffin, is a modern day answer to Daniel Traister’s 1986 article on what a rare book librarian position truly entails, and a much needed update of a still circulated text. Griffin’s article makes clear how much has changed in the thirty years since Traister’s article was first published and just how necessary New Directions is to the field. Many library school students still read Traister’s article (this reviewer read it only a few years ago). Happily, it can now be read in conjunction with Griffin’s updated version, which offers both a picture of the practicalities of special collections librarianship today (“The great recession of 2008 is still an economic reality here. Funds are tight, expectations are high, and staffing levels have continuously plummeted over the past five years” [2]) as well as a more holistic and inclusive approach to defining special collections librarianship. Over a series of six interviews, Griffin seeks answers to the questions, “What is it that we do? What makes a special collections librarian a special collections librarian? Is it our job function, the materials we work with, or a combination of the two” (5). Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer comes back as “it depends,” setting the stage for the following twenty chapters.

Not every chapter in this collection is a standout, although the best are bursting with a passion for both primary materials and the workflows that support their stewardship. While impossible to cover all aspects of special collections librarianship, the anthology runs the gamut. John Overholt’s “Collecting Printed Books in a Digital Age” gives the bullet points necessary to demonstrate value for special collections and is a delightful read. “Special Files on the Semantic Web: Using Linked Data to Revitalize Special Collections Catalogs” by Allison Jai O’Dell gives a great introduction to the semantic web and makes a convincing argument for librarians to take up the challenge of linking the data in our collections.

Two strong chapters tackle contemporary issues that many special libraries and archives see on the horizon, if they are not dealing with them already. “Documenting Ferguson: Collecting Current Events in Archives,” by Meredith R. Evans, Shannon Davis, Jennifer Kirmer, and Sonya Rooney, recognizes the challenges of collecting digital archival material, in real time, on sensitive or polarizing issues. Their case study documents their experience of documenting and preserving content surrounding the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. By creating a repository for the public to upload to, they were able to both support the community and make materials available to scholars in real time. “A Janus Perspective: Origins and Future of 21st-Century Preservation and Conservation in Library and Archives Special Collections,” by Priscilla Anderson and Whitney Baker, tackles the issue of sustainability in cultural heritage institutions. The article addresses a profoundly 21st-century concern of special collections librarians, that “Preservation professionals will spend more time and resources preparing for and then inevitably responding to the increase in climate change-induced emergencies” (145). This is a timely reminder that the information and library science field is far from immune from the impacts of climate change, and a call to arms for further involvement in the research and groundwork needed to prepare for its effects.

Several chapters offer updated answers to ongoing challenges. Sheryl Williams’ “Success with Donors: Practical Approaches That Work for All” should be required reading for library school students, as should Heather Briston’s “Open Access and Copyright in Archives and Special Collections.” “Success with Donors” offers concrete suggestions and tips on an aspect of librarianship expected of most special collections librarians, although for which many professionals are woefully unprepared. “Open Access and Copyright” is a succinct introduction to copyright issues as they impact special collections and can serve as a quick reference for librarians at any point in their careers.

New Directions for Special Collections covers a lot of ground. It at times seems like the anthology has too many balls in the air, yet it is a reflection of the fact that the field is changing, rapidly, and today’s special collections professional’s job is a juggling act. Best practices are evolving at a pace too fast to document in the traditional print format, as acknowledged by the editors in the afterward. But for now the essays in this volume capture exactly what they set out to: a snapshot of current topics and trends in special collections libraries, as well as a valuable resource for students and professionals alike.—Dana Hart, Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Copyright Dana Hart


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